Thoughts on mixed reality at the Science Museum

The Science Museum has a long, long history of interactive exhibits and use of digital technology. The earliest explorations of how hands-on experiences could bring science and technology to life date back to the 1930s.

Image of 1930s interactive gallery
Schoolboys in the Children’s Gallery of the Science Museum, March 1934

Interactivity is now a fundamental part of the museum’s offer and making sure that these exhibits are audience centred and fun is something we take incredibly seriously.

Interior image of Wonderlab: The Equinor Gallery at the Science Museum
Wonderlab: The Equinor Gallery at the Science Museum

The museum also adopted digital experiences early and remains a leader in this field. In recent years the museum has begun to explore the opportunities afforded by immersive technology to bring objects to life—to explain how they work, their historical context and the lives and experiences of people who used them. So, far we’ve explored Tim Peake’s return to Earth from the International Space Station in the Soyuz descent module in VR…

… and how VR can explore the complex mathematics behind the design of the Handley Page aircraft which is the centrepiece of Mathematics: The Winton Gallery.

Over the past ten months, driven by the Audience of the Future: Demonstrators application process, we’ve had dozens of conversations exploring the exciting affordances of mixed reality in the museum. When colleagues have asked us what we’re creating we’ve had to tell them that it is about robots and that the experience will combine: museum exhibit, digital environment, adventure game, immersive theatre, and escape room. So, here are our early thoughts and questions which are shaping our thinking:

1. Interactive experience

The two VR pieces that the museum has produced to date are linear. The experience unfolds and the audience member watches and listens; they are fundamentally passive. The opportunity for our new experience to offer agency to the audiences is incredibly exciting as we know that interactivity increases audience enjoyment and learning.

However, interactivity presents the project challenges too:

  • To what extent is the experience a sandbox environment that audiences can explore and to what extent is the experience on rails?
  • What does this mean for the experience design?
  • How do we inboard audiences to an interactive experience which will for almost all be their first use of mixed reality? Can this be part of the experience’s narrative?
  • How do we ensure the experience is inclusive and accessible?

2. Social experience

For most audiences, visiting the museum is a social experience. People come in groups. Whereas VR is an isolating, solitary experience, mixed reality has the potential to create a shared experience in which a group of visitors can collaborate or experience something together. This is hugely exciting for us as we can realise all the immersive benefits of VR but with this critical social element.

Again, there are challenges here too:

  • What if the group know each other well?
  • What if they don’t know each other?
  • What if they don’t speak the same language?
  • What if someone undertakes the experience alone?
  • Could the experience work for groups of school children?
  • If one or more member of the group can’t use the mixed reality headset for whatever reason, how can they still be part of the experience?
  • Are there opportunities for “Instagram moments” that can be shared on social media with friends and family beyond the walls of the museum?

3. Story-based experience

Stories are an effective way of connecting visitors with the museum’s displays. The way the museum traditionally approaches stories—called “narratives” internally—is centred around objects from the museum’s collection and the stories they tell, delivered through architecture, exhibit design, interpretation and programming. Our approach with this project will be completely different. Here we are beginning with the experience design and the story. There will be no physical objects—though there will probably be some 3D scans.

This approach really flips the museum’s traditional ways of thinking and working on their head. Conversations about experience design, architecture, multi-sensory elements, set works, extending the narrative before and after the visit, are suddenly part of the earliest discussions around the creation of the experience’s story.

As we grapple with what leading with story design will mean for our project, we’re facing further questions:

  • To what extent can the experience be set in an imaginary world but also have scientific accuracy?
  • Should robots be the primary focus or a “lens” for looking at other topics or themes?
  • Given that the experience will be unlike anything the museum sector has ever delivered before, how do we communicate what it is to audiences?
  • How can we place the visitor at the centre of the story to build a strong emotional connection with the narrative and let them help shape its outcome?
  • How might we extend the story before and after the visit to the museum?

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